EPA Passing Lead on Exxon Spill Cleanup to Montana

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – The Environmental Protection Agency could relinquish its lead role overseeing Exxon Mobil’s oil spill into the Yellowstone River by the end of the week, leaving the state to coordinate the remainder of the cleanup, federal and state officials said Thursday.

EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Merritt said the energy company has cleaned up almost all areas marred with heavy to moderate amounts of crude oil following the July 1 spill near Laurel. He says EPA’s personnel in Montana could be gone by the end of the week, although the agency will continue monitoring.

“They (Exxon Mobil) still have people out there to take care of the remaining segments,” Merritt said. “If there are Clean Water Act concerns that warrant federal attention, we’ll be back.”

Daily operations would be coordinated between the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co.

The EPA’s transition out of the cleanup comes after the DEQ recently notified Exxon Mobil that the 1,000 barrel spill likely violated several state pollution laws.

The violations include the unlawful discharge of crude oil into state waters without a permit, causing prohibited pollutants including a visible oil sheen to enter state waters and the unlawful presence of solid wastes such as crude oil on lands surrounding the river, according to the letter from DEQ enforcement division head John Arrigo.

No fines or other sanctions have yet been levied.

An estimated 620 Exxon Mobil contractors are working along dozens of miles of riverbank that were fouled by oil from the spill. That’s down from more than 1,000 workers at the peak of the cleanup.

The number of federal employees overseeing that effort peaked at 25 people in early July.

Montana DEQ deputy chief Tom Livers said the loss of the EPA’s on-the-ground presence in Montana was not a major concern as the cleanup narrows to remaining areas with only light oil or oil staining on vegetation.

“I’m less concerned about the bureaucracy surrounding the effort as making sure things get wrapped up. We want to make sure any problem areas are dealt with,” Livers said.